Saved: April 8th 2013March 1st 2011
The muezzin’s call to morning prayer was still floating across the streets of Kemer as my fiancee and I arrived at the meeting place. It was 5am, but already a dozen or so fellow tourists were waiting by the fountain in the town's main square, for the bus that would take us 250 kilometres north-west to Pamukkale, the ancient thermal springs in the west of Turkey.
Like 90% of visitors to southern Turkey’s Antalya province we were all Russian-speakers. We had chosen this day to take an excursion inland - peeling our bodies from Kemer's warm pebble beach, forsaking lunchtime plates of kebap
at its outdoor cafés, and saving the hammocks in Paradise Tea Garden for another time.
Everyone is still dressed for the beach – it is July and even at dawn the air is hot. When the bus arrives the last person to get on is a stocky lady with a round face. She is Aigul, our guide. She has black hair and Oriental eyes - we are surprised to hear her speak perfect Russian, and more surprised to be called moi zolotye
– “my golden ones”. Aigul speaks cheerily about the day ahead, but
soon puts down her microphone to let the Russians go back to sleep.
The sun rises above the palm trees as we leave Kemer. It lights up the Taurus Mountains on the left of the road, changing them from a purple silhouette into a series of green hills. Soon I am the only one awake. The sea to our right was calm, shimmering as the low sun above it threw pale light on to the water. It is because of mornings like this that Turks call the Mediterranean Akdeniz
- the White Sea.
***** > The full version of this story, titled "My Golden Ones", can be found in The Travel Rag magazine
The Russians arrived in Antalya about ten years ago. As soon as wages in the former Soviet Union started to rise, its people became more adventurous with their summer holidays. Sun-seekers abandoned Crimea and began to explore the beaches of Turkey instead. The first visitors were from Moscow and St. Petersburg, but soon tour operators opened everywhere: now Antalya's airport receives hundreds of flights each week from dozens of Russian towns. The Turkish temperament has helped develop a bond between the
two cultures: tourists from the CIS bring money to the country, and create jobs, but the locals’ hospitality is natural more often than it is cynical.
Between hotels are rows of souvenir bazaars manned by sleepy-looking Turkish boys in sandals and dusty vests. Shopping is a vital part of all Russians’ holidays - many families spend their whole year's savings during trips abroad - and even at 5.30am most of the stalls in each bazaar are open. I am sure that the boys, like the shopkeepers of Kemer, have taught themselves Russian in order to barter and banter with their new neighbours.
Hanging up in the bazaars are sunglasses, leather jackets, jewellery, even fur coats. Wise to their customers’ fashion-consciousness, some of the signs just carry the names of famous brands: if Armani made toothpaste it would fly off the shelves in Moscow.
We follow the coast until we reach Antalya city. Antalya is low and compact. Its buildings – attractive modern apartments, restaurants, new shops – are painted with deep oranges, greens and blues, and fill the land between the Taurus Mountains and the sea. The strip next to the sea, to the right
of the bus, represents all of Turkey’s hopes for a progressive, European rejuvenation: from the sports cars speeding to the beach to the sleek escalators that carry pedestrians over motorway overpasses, it feels futuristic. Clothes drying on lines between holiday apartments are the only hint of twentieth-century life.
On the bus’s left is the residential part of Antalya. Dozens of brand new mosques flashed past the bus’s windows. Each district contains the same ingredients (a few blocks of apartments, one or two roads lined with palm trees and shops, and one mosque), but every building is designed and painted differently.
Only the minarets are the same in each quarter. These pencil-shaped, cream-coloured towers have a dark blue tip, and three balconies at varying heights – narrow platforms from where the muezzin sings the adhan
(call to prayer). The towers define the landscape, rising from the colourful streets like candles on a birthday cake. Minarets, Aigul explained, are status symbols in Turkish towns: mosques have only one to begin with, before others are added when the community collects enough money to build them. The more minarets, they say, the more prosperous the neighbourhood.
The bus leaves
Antalya and moves inland. Soon the buildings disappear and we arrive on the steppe. The road became rough; the pale morning sky darkened into an oversaturated Middle Eastern blue. The landscape is light brown and uneven, like a piece of Turkish pide
bread, and rises up on the horizon, miles away, to form hills. Dry bushes punctuate the plains - there are no signs of civilisation. We travel silently for two hours through the barrenness before we reach another settlement. Most of the Golden Ones were still sleeping when the bus parked at our breakfast stop, a diner in the small town of Sőrgűt,
Although located in the wilderness the diner is very much on the tourist trail: the waiters speak Russian, and there are even blinchiki
on the buffet table. As the tourists wake up again they introduce themselves to the others on their table. There are several families from Moscow, a girl from Kazakhstan, and a middle-aged couple from Odessa (who, on the long way home, would sing Ukrainian folk songs to keep our spirits up).
As we pull out of Sőrgűt, Aigul whets our appetite for Pamukkale. Its name means ‘Cotton Castle’, describing what the
top of the hill where the thermal springs are located looks like from a distance. It is the colour of cotton because of the layers of travertines - dozens of bright white basins formed from calcium carbonate, which are filled with warm water whose minerals are said to have cleansing and healing powers. Pamukkale is also home to Cleopatra’s Pool, a basin full of hot thermal water that for centuries has given health to those who bathe in it. Pamukkale has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1988 and is one of the most visited places in Turkey.
As we move further across the steppe the road gets rougher. The plains give way to undulating hills. When we see civilisation again it is shaded with the pastel colours of the Turkish countryside: houses have red tiles on their roofs; the tips of minarets are turquoise or silver. Two women in billowing clothes and bright headscarves are walking towards the village of Alaattin, and in the village, boys in dusty vests and sandals are selling watermelons by the roadside, not souvenirs.
We stretch our legs again when the bus stops in Alaattin to refuel. The view over the
dusty terrain is impressive but not beautiful. The landscape is blurred by a heat haze. In a yard next to the petrol pumps, scruffy brown puppies mooch around a pen; a Russian boy takes a camera with a huge zoom lens out of his rucksack to photograph parrots on a telephone line.
At 10am, five hours after leaving Kemer, we make an unannounced detour – to a carpet factory, tucked behind a hill near the top of a shallow valley. The detour is organised on a simple but devilish principle: the factory pays for tour buses’ fuel, meaning day-long excursions from Kemer to Pamukkale cost less than a cup of coffee in St. Petersburg. In return, the tour guides bring hundreds of tourists to the factory every week (“Our driver needs to rest, my golden ones, so let’s have a look at some traditional Turkish crafts…”)
, and leave them to explore rooms full of expensive carpets – which, of course, can be bought, wrapped and flown abroad by the time we leave.
Aigul leaves us with the factory’s owner, a man in his forties with fiery eyes and a grey polo shirt wrapped snugly around a
pot belly. He starts our tour on the ground floor, where carpets are sewn by hand by a dozen young women working nimbly on low desks. We learn that some carpets take years to make. Sewing them is such a slow task because looking at the patterns for more than four hours each day can harm the girls’ eyesight.
In the next room we assemble around a large wooden object that, to our untutored eyes, is part table football set, part harp, and part guillotine. It spins strands of silk hundreds of metres long, from which the carpets are sewn after they are dyed. On a stage at the front of the room an elderly lady sits cross-legged with a ball of coloured cotton in each hand, and observes us with an ethereal smile, like a praying Sufi.
We go upstairs to where the carpets are stored in a dozen large rooms. Rolled-up carpets rest against all of their walls. Other rugs are hung on the walls, as art. They look sumptuous: their patterns are mesmeric (surely taken from Turkish culture) and their colours are taken from Turkey herself. The group of us assume poses like schoolchildren at
an art exhibition, awed at a decadence that we don’t understand.
The owner catches up with us and leads us into a large, empty hall. When he starts to talk about the price of the carpets we learn that many cost more than most families earn in a year. He then dispatched his workers to all corners of the factory in search of twenty carpets. The men returned with them slung over their shoulders and at their boss’s command they threw the rugs into the centre of the room with the panache of circus entertainers. The carpets unravelled in mid-air, landing on the floor in unison with a flash of colour and a plush thud. The man told us to take off our footwear and walk barefoot over each of the carpets. After another half an hour we would have been able to tell a $1000 design from a $25,000 one using only the soles of our feet, but we are summoned back to the bus.
Aigul prepares us for Denizli as we reach the city walls. From the top of a valley we can peer down on all of its sprawling districts, which spread colourfully
across many hills. The region’s fabrics (as well as the tradition of rearing impressive roosters) make the town famous within southern Europe. Denizli’s architecture is designed with the flair of its Ottoman and contemporary Turkish inhabitants. Its mosques are placed close together, and some have three or four minarets - a hint that the town’s money is spent on the needs of its inhabitants, not its visitors as is true on the coast.
When we get to the town’s central streets, Aigul explains that Denizli is a modern centre for conservative Islam. The people on the street wear Moslem dress, and many women are fully wrapped in jet black chadors. It is an arresting sight but is not shocking: the spring in their step, and the shopping bags in their hands full of bright clothes, suggests freedom.
At mid-day we finally reach our destination. As we approach Pamukkale its ‘Cotton Castle’ is just a white splotch at the top of a valley like any other - but when we get to the travertines their beauty is astounding. It is like a ski slope made of hot salt. We strip off and paddle in the basins’ perfect water; the view of Denizli province is extraordinary.
It has taken us eight hours to travel the 250 kilometres from Kemer, and Aigul’s Golden Ones are tarnished by sweat and dust. But as we rest in Cleopatra’s Pool – sinking our heads beneath the water to feel the minerals fizz over our eyeballs – I feel better for having taken the road to Pamukkale. > The full version of this story, titled "My Golden Ones", can be found in The Travel Rag magazine. It is longer by 650 words, and includes more passages about southern Turkish culture and some thoughts on tourism.